IT WAS A TYPICAL summer’s day in Mississippi. The temperature was well into the thirties and the humidity levels were high. Not so typical was the trial taking place in the Neshoba County Circuit Court that was now drawing to a close. For the past three weeks, the gaze of the American public had been firmly fixed on the courthouse, its voracious appetite for sensationalism being drip-fed minute-by-minute bulletins of the proceedings on radio and TV. For those who liked to ponder things in more detail, thousands of pages had been devoted to opinion columns and expert comment in newspapers and magazines throughout the country as the case seized the imagination of the concerned and worried man in the street.
Coming just eighteen years after the Mississippi Civil Rights Workers’ murders in 1964, racial tensions were once again running high. Security had been tightened and stood on red alert. Heavily armed guards patrolled the entrance to the courthouse, and all police leave had been cancelled as the county and country teetered on the brink of yet more civil unrest. Military units, primed and alert, waited in their barracks, just in case.
On the stand was one George Webster, a black man accused of the first-degree murder of a white woman, Enid Benson, the mother of his daughter-in-law, with a single gunshot, at a hotel in the county of Neshoba, on March 16, 1982.
The state-backed prosecution had argued strongly for his conviction, but had failed to provide an adequate and clear reason why a respected and hard-working farmer from the county should have shot and killed the grandmother of his son’s child. That Webster had been in the building at the time of the fatal shooting was in no doubt, and the fact that he’d gone on the run immediately after was a matter of public record, but there was no apparent motive, or at least none that could be established. Webster had pleaded not guilty, but the case built by the prosecution had been so robust and argued with such power that it had just steam-rollered over the counter-arguments presented by the defendant’s counsel and shredded all attempts to relate a credible alternative scenario.